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Lake Flato Houses

Lake Flato Houses
Embracing the Landscape

This lavishly illustrated book presents an extensive selection of landmark homes built since 1999 by the San Antonio firm Lake|Flato Architects, an award-winning leader in sustainable architecture that merges with the landscape.

April 2014
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310 pages | 10 x 8.5 |

Lake|Flato Architects of San Antonio, Texas, is nationally and internationally acclaimed for buildings that respond organically to the natural environment. The firm uses local materials and workmanship, as well as a deep knowledge of vernacular traditions, to design buildings that are tactile and modern, environmentally responsible and authentic, artful and crafted. Lake|Flato won the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2013, and it has also received the American Institute of Architects’ highest honor, the National Firm Award. In all, Lake|Flato has won more than 150 national and state design awards. Residential architecture has always been a priority for the firm, and Lake|Flato Houses showcases an extensive selection of landmark homes built since 1999. Color photographs and architectural commentary create a memorable portrait of houses from Texas to Montana. Reflecting the firm’s emphasis on designing in harmony with the land, the houses are grouped by the habitats in which they’re rooted—brushland, desert, hillside, mountains, city, and water. These groupings reveal how Lake|Flato works with the natural environment to create houses that merge into the landscape, blurring boundaries between inside and outside and accommodating the climate through both traditional and cutting-edge technologies. The sections are opened by noted architect and educator Frederick Steiner, who discusses Lake|Flato’s unique responses to the forms and materials of the various landscapes. An introduction by journalist Guy Martin summarizes the history of Lake|Flato and its philosophy, and explores the impact of its work on sustainable architecture.



Introduction by Guy Martin


Cross Timbers Ranch

Cutting Horse Ranch

Porch House

Air Barns


Dog Team Too Loft and Studio

Bluffview Residence

Bayou Residence


Brown Residence

Desert House

Dunning Residence


Hillside House

Story Pool House

Touche Pass House


LC Ranch

Bartlit Residence

Lake Tahoe Residence


Lake Austin House

Hog Pen Creek

Mill Springs Ranch

Project Credits


Guy Martin has written for numerous magazines, including Condé Nast Traveler, Garden & Gun, the (London) Observer, the (London) Sunday Telegraph, and the New Yorker. A native of Athens, Alabama, a small cotton town in the Tennessee Valley, he grew up in a house designed by the architect Paul Rudolph, who had been friends with his parents. Martin lives in Berlin, Germany, and New York City.Frederick Steiner, FASLA, is the Henry M. Rockwell Chair in Architecture and Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent books include Design for a Vulnerable Planet, The Essential Ian McHarg: Writings on Design and Nature, Planning and Urban Design Standards: Student Edition (with Kent Butler), and Human Ecology: Following Nature’s Lead.



Guy Martin

Founding partner David Lake and I are sitting in a conference room in the bustling Lake|Flato offices, located in a former 1930s automobile dealership two hundred yards northeast of the Alamo. From this spot in March of 1836, one of General Santa Anna's batteries rained down some pretty good cannon fire on Bowie's and Travis's back door.

Lake and I are discussing the sea change that America's builders, manufacturers, and architects underwent in the late 1990s, as the economic and environmental benefits of "green" building materials and practices began to be realized. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings for buildings did not exist, nor did the ratings agency, the U.S. Green Building Council. Lake|Flato had been in existence for fifteen years, and had become locally renowned for its resolute strategy of reducing the energy demands of its public and private buildings, cheating the blazing Texas sun, eschewing air conditioning when shade or wind would do, adding porches and plazas, shading walls, and generally coaxing its clients to open their buildings to the out-of-doors. But there were no real rules.

"The University of Texas School of Nursing came to us in 1998 and said, 'We want a sustainable nursing school that will be a nurturing place for the people who work inside it and that will nurture the community around it,'" Lake explains. "So we teamed with the Houston office of Berkebile, Nelson, Immenschuh, and Mcdowell to make that building as 'friendly,' meaning as efficient, as possible. But that was the moment when the various technologies and metrics were at a point so that, with enough study, we could start really grinding down on the numbers to make our houses work to be more efficient. It's when it became possible to systematize what we'd been doing."

The architecture of Texas looks a lot different now than it did when the Republic was founded in 1836, but the state's topography and infamous climatic extremities are intact. In the east, the same hurricane-lashed Gulf swamps give way to dry, hilly chaparral. In the southern and western reaches of the state, the Chihuahuan desert is still the vengeful ruling god: the temperature reaches a hundred for a hundred days a year, and the annual rainfall is less than twelve inches. The Panhandle's prairies still have the highest annual concentration of tornadoes of any region on the North American continent.

For people, animals, and buildings in Texas, the fight is to survive all that. The architects designing each structure built on this ground—be it a gas station in Del Rio, a glass office tower in Houston, or a Lake|Flato pavilion house snuggled down like a Pacific Rim fishing village transported to Lake Austin—must still pick their way through many of the challenges that the early settlers faced.

"The lesson we've learned," Lake says drily, one hundred and seventy-eight years after the Battle of the Alamo, "is that if you can build in Texas, you can build anywhere."

Much of the joy of looking at Lake|Flato's work, collected in the following pages, is to watch these homes respond to their respective landscapes. They may seem to be tucked into this or that fold of the earth, but they are not sedentary dwellings. They put their inhabitants in the land, protect them, elevate them, light them in the day, cloak them at night, make them move, let them rest. Taken as a whole, these houses know their footing, they flow into the landscape, they hew to the contours like horses—here's a surefooted pony that's good in the mountains, here's one that knows how to stay low and run long in the chaparral. Each one has a different set of muscles and a different gait.

The houses in this book come by that trademark resilience honestly. Partner Bob Harris, a United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Fellow, has made sustainability his personal focus within the firm. He has been been instrumental in applying cutting-edge analytics and building technologies—in materials and in the mechanical systems of the buildings—to each project. Woven into the design process now are reams of analysis by a team of engineers who pore over the siting, heating, and cooling requirements of the structures.

"Our early projects were based on an intuitive approach to energy conservation, and now, with more science applied, we can go further," Harris says. "We can take a house to net zero with many passive-gain strategies and materials. We can also take it entirely off the grid. Every house is now 'smart' to a certain level, but beyond that the level of science we apply is largely determined by how the client wants to live, and in what kind of environment."

In the eighteenth century, the Spanish colonial response to the intense heat in their precincts of Texas was to build the fat-walled New World baroque adobe missions and their secular cousins, the haciendas. The stone and stucco had moderately good insulating properties, and the windows were shuttered, which also helped combat the heat. The operative notion was that the world was so angry that it must be walled out—a pre-air.conditioning attempt at air-conditioning philosophy. Some of the roofs of the adobe dwellings were flat, occasionally with parapets, and some were hipped and tiled. The walls did keep out some heat, but one could also make the argument that the Spanish were slowly roasting themselves in variously shaped clay ovens.

In the first third of the nineteenth century, the Spanish colonial idiom was subjected to a very different architectural influence, namely, that of the English and German settlers. Houses, in the German and the English view, required a knockabout clapboard sort of openness, higher ceilings, bigger windows—features consciously designed to catch a breeze. Buildings were stripped down because ornament was frippery, and there was no room for frippery in Texas.

The early settlers from the next-door parts of the Deep South, where the weather was humid and the breeze highly prized, pushed westward into East Texas with the classic dogtrot house: two rooms, separated by a central open hall, covered by a tin roof whose ridge often paralleled the road—or, more precisely, was sited so that the breeze could draw through the dogtrot.

The settlers quickly discovered that there was wood in the Piney Woods and in the Hill Country, but there wasn't enough to fill the needs of a state the size of Texas. The place was rich in limestone, much of South Texas having been a marshy sea back in the Pleistocene. As the industrialized twentieth century arrived and manufacturing technology was brought to bear on agriculture, there was an increasing use of steel in ranching operations, in barn structures for livestock, fencing, silos, pumps, troughs, and windmills.

The second great catalyst for the universal presence of steel in Texas was oil production. The huge new East Texas field, the most productive in America to this day, came online in the late 1930s, just as World War II was creating a huge spike in the need for petroleum. Over the last seventy years, Texas has had a need for every sort of engineering and fabricating talent, carpenters, and stonemasons, and welders who can run a bead so true that it is difficult to understand the alchemy that brought the seam about.

The palette of the seventy-three Lake|Flato architects and engineers whose excellent work we see on the following pages comes straight out of that history and these materials: stone, steel, wood, harsh weather, and the fine and eclectic mix of architectural vernacular styles from various local communities, both residential and industrial. The influences are clear, as seen in the silos (page 000) and the drilled and squared rock face (page 000). But there's a big difference between staring at a weathered limestone face on the westbound side of I-10 and employing the delicate calculus to figure out how that stone might best be used on this hillside, in this piece of that house.

It's no exaggeration to say that Ted Flato has rocks in his head—many extraordinary rocks, a catalogue of indigenous Tex-Mex geology, in fact. His knowledge, curated by his use of and experiences with the material over the last thirty years, is a lovely thing. But to explain the rock catalogue's depth and breadth, we must take another step back.

Lake/Flato had its beginnings in the San Antonio offices of the iconic Texas architect O'Neil Ford, where, in the late 1970s, Lake, Flato and a number of the architects who would eventually form the firm met and worked. Ford was an iconoclast, a resolutely "local" architect enamored of no fashion except what felt right, as defined by the landscape and the materials at hand. Largely self-taught, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and was, curiously, the only human ever to be designated a National Historic Landmark. Late in his career, Ford was the absolute enemy of what he considered the overly mannered postmodernists.

"He came to work one day, pissed off," says Flato, "and announced that he was going to call himself a 'premodernist.'"

Ford was simply and brilliantly original. It's fair to say that Fordian architectural DNA has infused itself into the fabric of the Lake|Flato approach. Upon Ford's death in 1983, Flato and Lake spun off and formed their firm.

"For years at O'Neil's firm we used what we called Ol' Yella, a beautiful buff limestone that we could only get from this angry old German rancher named Seidensticker," Flato explains. "The supplier was Charlie Cade. He was difficult, too. Cade had the quarry. You'd go out there and he'd say, "Welp, hit's been rainin'. Got nothin' for ya.' Three weeks would go by. You'd go out there. He'd say, 'Welp, sorry.' But Ol' Yella came off in these gorgeous four-inch-thick slabs, real big, you could do anything with them. We put them on the Courtyard House in San Antonio. I think that might have been the last time we used that limestone."

That house, clad in those delightfully massive three-foot-tall slabs of Seidensticker's best Ol' Yella, has a kind of Middle Eastern grace. The size of the slabs gives the house great permanence, and yet—as you sit by the lap pool and regard the courtyard—there's a light, cool quality, too, as if the house is wearing a crisp, dun-colored linen suit.

"But that," Flato says, "is not really the best stone. There's this other, truly magical stone from Mexico. One day, when we were still working for O'Neil, I was trying to figure out what to use on a house, and O'Neil took a look and said, 'You need Vallecillo.' 'What's that?' I said. He said, 'There's this little town down in Mexico, south of Laredo but not all the way to Monterrey. You should go take a look.' And that's all he said."

Flato drove down to Vallecillo. The stone was an extraordinarily rich tan with a gray interior, and had not gone unnoticed by the locals. Most of the public buildings and many of the houses were clad in the stuff.

"The thing that made it so special was that something happened to that stone back in the Pleistocene," Flato explains. "What happened was that the seas ebbed and flooded. Each time the Gulf of Mexico covered this area, a different sediment of limestone would be added—and each time it ebbed, a layer of dry caliche would be added that prevented the layers of limestone from attaching to each other, which gave us the two weathered faces, on the top and the bottom of each sediment. There were also these vertical fissures that went down through the layers, and as the ocean receded, the caliche would fill those, too. The result was a stone with four beautiful, weathered faces. It had such tremendous authority, that rock. We bought truckloads of it."

What's so striking—thirty-three years on—is the specificity of it all: under this one village outside Monterrey were these rich sediments of limestone that an extraordinary series of geophysical accidents lapped and laid atop each other over million of years, resulting in a bit of natural beauty harnessed by O'Neil Ford, who then years later passed the tip along at one moment in time to one young architect, who then covered a client's house in Laredo in this stone. This is an architectural chain of events that reaches back, grabs the prehistoric world and brings it into the present, as if the stone under Vallecillo had never been buried and the intervening 20 million years were an eyeblink. Siting a house is sudden-death feng shui; if you site the house wrong—and many people do—it's wrong for a long time. Karla Greer, who has devoted her thirty-year career at the firm to working on many of the homes in this book, is especially eloquent on the subject of the risks and rewards of siting.

"We look comprehensively at the landscape," Greer says, "asking questions about how clients will use the house, how they will use the land, and how the house can assist in their appreciation and enjoyment of the place. We'll start with a passive response, what the summer and winter winds do, where the window and door openings should be, and, not least, what sort of views we have. Then we can go into active systems, whether they want photovoltaics—in other words, how far off the grid they're comfortable being."

Conducting sunlight simulations during the design process and determining the main directions of the summer and winter winds vis-à-vis the major openings help determine which way a house "faces." Some of the houses on the pages that follow-.particularly those constructed as "villages" or as a series of pavilions—face in multiple directions and offer a multitude of seats in the landscape from which many different views are possible.

"The land itself has a big part in the dialogue," Greer says. "Sometimes we'll go to a site, and the site just tells us what it is that we should do—the right piece of land can speak that clearly. Sometimes I think that cozying in, with our backs to a hill, touches some really old, primal part of us. We feel protected. And obviously, in an urban setting, it's important to choose your views and the major openings, so that you can edit out the neighbors."

Very soon after founding the firm in 1984, Lake and Flato began designing houses for clients with lots of outdoor space: specifically, with screened-in porches and huge dogtrots between pavilion-like structures dedicated to various activities. Each house was a sort of village, turned outward, toward the out-of-doors. It doesn't sound radical now, and in fact many of the houses in this volume are examples of such structures, but at the time it was a considered a huge leap backwards and a nigh-on suicidal practice for architects in Texas, the land of energy-hog air conditioning.

Twenty-two years ago, when his firm was six years old, Flato said to me: "Why air conditioning? What's wrong with the breeze? If you site the thing well to the prevailing wind, which people in Texas did for decades before air conditioning, you don't have much of a problem."

Flato, Lake, and their coterie began their professional lives with this thinking. At the time, there was no official or unofficial rating system in the United States for the energy efficiency of a building's "envelope." That was decades off, in fact. Even the notion of an energy envelope for a building didn't yet exist. The only people who were really thinking about that were at NASA, and they only thought about it because space was a supremely hostile environment for space capsules and thus for astronauts.

There's a second, arguably less apparent but important, trend reflected in these pages. That trend is our own loss of fear about returning to the out-of-doors.

We could be forgiven for thinking that that would be a simple thing: to walk, to sit, to eat, to live outside. After all, everybody loves a great outdoor space. But, for living, we've been conditioned by our own rampant air conditioning—cold and hot—to fear the vagaries of the great outdoors. There's an unspoken code in America that everything must be constant. The message in these houses is that the inconstancy of the out-of.doors is exactly what makes it so enjoyable.

Looked at closely, this collection of homes allows us to track the increasing courage of this firm's clients to trust these architects and make the move outside. The corollary is that, when one trusts these architects, they will use the placement and the construction of a home to harness the out-of-doors itself. This can be as simple as installing a great overhang to provide shade, adding a pergola over a walkway, or siting a house on the bias to catch a breeze off a pond. Literally every house on every page of this book does some version of this.

Two homes stand out for what I'll call client courage and exquisite interplay of design and siting. I've been, with Flato, to one of them: the simple, beautifully radical Hill Country Jacal. The Jacal is a second home, a country house for a city couple in a remote area Bear Creek, about an hour west of San Antonio. This couple came to the firm some years back, having just bought that piece of land. They didn't have much money for a house, but beyond that, they had the notion that it was possible to have a house that was off the grid. One hundred percent off the grid.

"This really developed in a very basic way from settler architecture," explains Flato as we step down the driveway to the Jacal. "You come to the country. It's your grubstake. What would you do? What's the first thing that anybody would have built for shelter? You'd dig into the hill and build a wall, and put some sort of shed roof over it. Well, we did that. The advantage of this roof is that it collects the rainwater, which is used for the shower and the toilet. But that's pretty much it."

The Jacal is basically a generous moon-shaped screened porch with no house behind it. Even in the hottest Hill Country summers, it's cooled by the creek. The stone wall, dug into the grade a foot or two, is the house. The wall curves gently with its concave side facing the water. The kitchen, storage, and sleeping nooks are masterfully fitted into it, much as the living and storage areas would be built inside the hull of a schooner. The master bed is out in the far southern corner of the screened-in "living room," with a view of the gold fingers of the sandbars in the winding creek just down the hill. In a stone nook on the left side of the wall is a bunk bed for the couple's two daughters. This is a sweet pioneer abode: Laura Ingalls Wilder in Texas, circa 1835. All that's missing from the picture is an Appaloosa with one rein wrapped around a post under the shed, his right rear foot cocked up on the edge of his hoof.

The second house that embraces the outdoors and shows great client courage is the reconditioned in Kyle, Texas. It's one thing for a single, tight family to dig into the hillside, as the owners of the Jacal did; it's quite another thing to dismantle a 40' x 180' x 20' Alamo Cement Plant shed, chop it into pieces, and have it reassembled as three giant structures, two of which are screened and/or semi-covered—and then to live in those structures. Within the main "living" shed are isolated, covered modules for kitchen and bath, but this house cleaves quite closely to the idea of total outdoor living.

There's a third important aspect to both of these high-risk homes, evinced earlier—one that is crucial to understanding what has happened to Lake|Flato in the thirty years since its founding and to where it is headed. Both houses are what can only be described as hyperlocal—which is not a word, but which gets at the idea. Lake and Flato had been driving by, and admiring, the Alamo Cement Plant for years. When they learned it was scheduled for demolition, and the right risk-friendly client came along, they sold it to him as his house. In the Jacal's case, the hyperlocality lies in the deep vernacular quoting of the sodbuster lean-to. That design was considered outré, temporary, poor-man's housing by the nineteenth-century settlers themselves. Here it's been turned into a stage for pure, funky, camping-out joy by the river. In terms of a living structure in Texas, you'd be hard-pressed to get any more "local" than that.

Lake and Flato began their professional lives thinking this way—the Jacal was quite an early commission—and they never stopped. The relentless use of local metaphors extends to their corporate and commercial work: the San Antonio Spurs stadium, a.k.a. the AT&T Center, is basically a giant feed barn, with huge silos at each corner that contain the stairwells, clad in corrugated steel. The wildly popular stadium, which also hosts San Antonio's famous annual rodeo, is an example of how Lake|Flato have made hyperlocality scalable. They can take an enormous cement factory shed, chop it like sushi chefs, and bring it down to a ranch as a family residence, or they can take a shit-kicking Texas feed barn, blow it up like a pool float, and give seats to 18,000 for an NBA playoff game.

In residential terms, this scalability is most apparent in the development of the Porch House, under the aegis of founding firm member Bill Aylor. Aylor, the lead architect for the firm in the construction of Cross Timbers Ranch—an extremely high-end bespoke house—has also taken the lead on the Porch House iteration of home architecture. With a Porch House, it's possible for a client to select any number of modules—in effect, prefabricated rooms or pavilions—that can be assembled according to the client's wishes. This is a fine example of the firm's ability to combine two basically contradictory ideas: the idea of custom architecture and the idea of prefabrication.

As we might imagine with a firm whose designs are rooted in simplicity, the choice of materials and the details of the structures play a large role in the earliest phases of a project. Architect Brian Korte arrived at a particularly elegant marriage of form, economy, and craft in his Broadford Farm Pavilion. The viewer's eye is drawn, first, to the openness and simplicity of the structure. It has a shed roof; an "open" side toward the pool and the mountains with a glass front that encompasses the view; and the kitchen/bar, dressing room, and bath form the building's back. The rafters are of reclaimed Douglas fir, native to Idaho.

But let's draw the reader's eye to the thinking and the craft that went into the structural steel: the columns that carry the "box" of the four horizontal steel beams that support the clerestory. It's as if the little house has a steel belt around its middle. The columns then work up to support the "flitch" rafters, which are made from two pieces of reclaimed Douglas fir bolted to a steel spine running between them. The frame is a very light, almost invisible box of steel, like the frame of a jet plane, upon which the whole pavilion hangs.

"Detail begins with how a building comes out of the ground, how the different materials meet, and what happens where they meet," Korte says. "The gist of this pavilion is that the horizontal 'beams' are actually two steel C-channels fitted back to back, with a wooden beam between them providing a thermal break, but also giving us a piece of wood from which we could hang the sliding doors and to which we could attach the windows above. The doors are straight-grain Douglas fir, custom-made. The reason the steel columns are twelve inches out from the walls was to put the structure outside the frame of the building—it's in an earthquake zone—but that does double duty, in that it allows for bigger runs of glass and a better view. It's like a modern pole-barn."

Not unexpectedly, the Idaho client was tremendously happy with the natural ease and soundness of the design. A few years after he had it built, he decided to sell the ranch, but he wrote an unusual precondition into the sale: the Pool Pavilion was uprooted and moved lock, stock, and barrel down the road to overlook the pool on his new ranch. That doesn't happen to a lot of outbuildings when ranches trade hands. {Note: Brian didn't leave extra space here in his mockup, but I think Guy definitely intended for there to be a break here.} Homes take many forms. We could say that the taproots of Lake|Flato's work drive deep into the sediments of history—and not just the immediate, human history of Texas, although the firm does do that very well because it is from, and of, the state. As they pore over every project, these architects also drive back into the prehistory of the rock and the wood as the region was washed over by the seas. Like a group of paleontologists, they take their vocabulary of materials, and the language for what to do with those materials, from this deep, old way of looking at the world. It's a rare thing to imagine a piece of architecture not so much as a manufactured structure that one brings to a place, but rather as a structure that comes from a place. There's a vast difference, in the world of architecture, between those two propositions.

This is why the homes in this book look like they grew up where they are. It's also the reason why this book is organized on the principles (and the demands) of geography, topography, and climate. The point of Lake|Flato's work is that, as the earth takes many forms, so do our ways of living upon it. The chapters that follow are not ordered by the "type" of architecture—there is no "type" here, anyway—but rather by the elements: the land, the wind, the water, and the sun. These are the larger forces that work on each of us, and they are the forces that these homes are made to fit.

There's something strong, and restful, and right about shelter that keeps to the earth's order of things. It's what a home should do.




“As a way to both mark its 30th year and celebrate an unwavering approach to design, the firm recently released Lake|Flato Houses: Embracing the Landscape (University of Texas Press), a book that showcases how this philosophy succeeds in creating unique homes. “Unlike commercial projects, homes have a scale and a need to connect to the environment that is more obvious,” says Flato. ”
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